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Published on August 08, 2012

School Backpack Safety

Tammi Adam, MS,OTR/L,CLT,CPAM
Avera Sacred Heart Hospital

Most likely you have begun your back-to-school shopping.  Half the fun and excitement of the new school year is selecting new supplies and clothes, including a new backpack or bag.

In the United States, it is estimated that more than 79 million students carry backpacks.  In 2007, more than 2000 backpack-related injuries were reported to be treated in medical facilities. The American Occupational Therapy Association celebrates National School Backpack Awareness Day on the third Wednesday of each September.  With school starting soon, now seems like a good time to educate on what to look for and how to wear a backpack or bag to keep your child safe.  However, with people of all ages carrying heavy backpacks, bags, and purses, this can be an important lesson for those of all ages.

Carrying too much weight or wearing a backpack the wrong way can lead to health problems, such as pain and strain. Wearing a heavy school backpack can lead to tingling arms, aching back and shoulders, stooped posture and weakened muscles. 

How to Load a Backpack:

  • Arrange books and materials so they do not slide around in the bag.
  • Load the heaviest items closest to the child’s back (the back of the pack).
  • The loaded backpack should not weigh more than 10% of the child’s body weight.  For a student weighing 100 pounds, this means the backpack should weigh no more than 10 pounds (5 pounds for someone weighing 50 pounds).  About 55% of students wear a pack that is heavier than 10% of their body weight.
  • On days when the backpack may become overloaded, it is recommended to have your child “hand carry” an extra book or other item.
  • If your child’s backpack is consistently overweight, you may want to choose a book bag on wheels.
  • Check your child’s bag daily to see what they carry to and from school.  Make sure that the contents are necessary for the day’s activities.  Remove those items that are not.

How to Wear a Backpack:

  • Students should wear their backpacks so that the bottom of the pack rests at the curve of the low back.  It should never rest more than four inches below the child’s waistline. Studies have shown that students wearing their backpacks at the curve of the low back are actually enhancing the body’s center of gravity and having the least adverse effect on their posture.
  • Distribute weight evenly by wearing both shoulder straps. A common problem with backpacks is the habit of slinging the pack over one shoulder. The natural response of the body is to compensate by leaning to the side that is not carrying the burden, curving the spine and causing pain and discomfort.
  • Adjust the shoulder straps so that the pack fits snugly to your child’s back.   If the pack hangs loosely from the back, it can pull the child backwards and strain muscles.  Have your child wear the waist belt if the backpack has one to help distribute the backpack’s weight more evenly.
  • Choose a backpack that has well-padded straps. Because of the many blood vessels and nerves at the neck and shoulders, a thin, unpadded strap can place too much pressure on these structures and cause tingling and pain in the neck, arms and hands.  A padded back is also beneficial (those made for a laptop are usually padded very well).
  • The backpack should also fit well for the student.  A common misconception is that a young child “will grow into it.”  School bags come in different sizes for different ages.  Also, choose a pack with enough room for necessary items.

Recommendations for messenger bags, purses, briefcases:

  • For those with shoulder straps, place the strap diagonally across the opposite shoulder to help distribute weight more evenly across the back.  Straps should also be wide and adjustable.
  • Alternate shoulders (bags with a strap) or hands (bags with handles) by switching from side to side to prevent the strain from being on one side of the body all the time.   Consider briefcases, bags or luggage with wheels (and if able, push in front of you or to your right or left side, instead of pulling behind you).
  • Eliminate unnecessary items and weight from the bag.  Coins can easily increase the weight of a purse, and some items might be better left in the car to access.  You might also decide to have varied-size options, such as a smaller purse for errands and a small backpack for long errands.  Leather also weighs more, so lighter materials such as microfiber or fabric would decrease strain.  Check daily to remove any unnecessary items that add additional weight.
  • Select purses or bags with individual compartments to distribute weight more evenly.

Please take the time to select your child’s backpack and your next bag.  Check for proper fit and weight, and remember to incorporate good body mechanics and habits. A bit of prevention can help to promote a healthy and safe lifestyle for our children and ourselves.  Have an exciting and healthy school year!

Tammi Adam, MS, OTR/L, is an occupational therapist at the Avera Sacred Heart Hospital Physical Medicine Department.

Sources:  The American Occupational Therapy Association, Inc. – www.aota.org